Sunday, November 17, 2013

Why Social Acceptance of Polyamory is Inevitable


I must be honest with you: I giggle gleefully when another state passes a law allowing for same-sex marriages. I quickly share the news around Facebook in an attempt to remind conservative associates that they're on the wrong side of history.  It's my happy dance.

And thus I look at social recognition and acceptance of Polyamory as inevitable. Because of what's happened before ... concerning the expansion of freedom afforded to women. It's all about the chics. Why? Let's talk about marriage for a minute.

1. It Used to Be All About the Money

Marriage was (arguably still is) all about the money. Marriage is all about the means of transferring wealth and assets through inheritance and keeping wealth within a family. In ancient Greece, a woman whose father had died without male heirs would have been forced to marry her nearest male relative, even if she had to divorce her own husband first. Today, women are still exchanged for dowries in some cultures. And men used to wife-swap to gain political and economic advantage. Why? Money. Inheritance is a running theme here so pay attention.

2. Polygamy Was Considered Normal

It was common (and is still common in many cultures today) that men took on multiple wives to improve their odds at delivering surviving children. Surviving children was necessary to guarantee the transfer of assets through inheritance (see the trend?).

3. What's Love Got To Do With It?

You know, it's funny, but originally marriage had nothing to do with love. It used to be just a family affair. Prior to the 13th century, marriages were about contractually combining families and assets (oh, there it is again). Women were obliged to marry to perpetuate ownership of things. Arranged marriages were the way to ensure matters of inheritance; with the rise of modern markets and transportation, individuals (not families) could opt for their own financial entanglements.

4. The Government Wasn't Involved

Massachusetts introduced marriage licensing in 1639 and most states required licensing by the 19th century. State-sanctioned marriage is a legal acknowledgement of property inheritance for purposes of taxation (oh, more inheritance: the state must keep records so they know who to tax).

5. And Neither Was the Church

It used to be that a man could take on more wives if another wife was unable to bear children; it was even grounds for divorce. It was the Christian church that suggested marriage could be more than just for the sole purpose of procreation and it codified monogamy into its doctrine, contrary to the will of the reigning aristocracy more concerned with inheritance (crap, there it is again!). Before the 13th century, marriages were recognized between families and the Catholic church had no play in it; in 1215, the Catholic church required engaged families to post public notices of marriage to decrease the frequency of invalid contracts and invalid transfer of property (ta-da!).

6. Modern Marriage Evolved from Victorian-Era Romanticism

Okay, so if everything up to the 19th century was about property and retention of family wealth, the rise of the individual took place in the 1700's when Enlightenment thinkers were suggesting that women trapped in loveless marriages were regrettable and that women should have a voice in choosing a partner. By 1840, the virginal white in a wedding gown is started by Queen Victoria, and the concept of feminine chastity and purity pervades western thinking (herein enters social slut-shaming and the fall of courtesans and kept-women, and - not coincidentally - the rise of prostitution as men seek other venues for their sexual affairs). By the end of the 19th century, intimacy revolves around love, couples, and virginal virtue ... and not principally about inheritance and retaining wealth. Women win a philosophical entitlement to happiness and independence.

7. Modern Era Marriage

And by the 20th century, courting and dating started in the 1920's as women won rights for indpeendent thinking and property ownership. Conservatism blossomed to restrain all of those free-thinking, independently-wealthy harlots so that by the 50's, the nuclear family was considered the only socially-acceptable option for any woman. Their children (armed with prophylactic and pharmaceutical approaches to birth control) inspired the sexual revolution in the 60's and challenged the norms of monogamy and the gay movement pushed for broader thinking - at roughly the same time civil rights challenged us to look at the character of individuals and not the color of their skin.

Polyamory will eventually be just as recognized and accepted as heterosexual marriage because of the continued freedom earned by women (and extensibly freedom of mankind, in general, allowing for homosexual entanglement).

What we see since the turn of the 20th century is expansion of individual liberty and freedom of expression for women, not social-constraint or a resurgence of conservatism. In Western societies, women are not chattel: they are not property to be traded or exchanged; they are free to address their own reproductive decision-making; they have their own education; they have their own wealth; they're exposed to broader ideas about love, life, and happiness than any other time in history; they are free to make whatever choices in these affairs they wish to. Choice. To believe that society will further constrict choice, or that women will voluntarily restrain their freedoms, to me, is backwards and implausible, and certainly on the wrong side of history.

Thus Polyamory and its eventual social acceptance and recognition are inevitable.


Acknowledge, Apologize, and Act!

One thing that people new to poly often want is to have the magic formula; that mystical mixture of actions and words that will allow one to make big changes, and transform paradigms without hurting anyone's feelings.  I'm here to tell you that it doesn't exist.

You WILL fuck up.  You WILL make mistakes.  You WILL hurt the feelings of the person/people you love.  What you choose to do with it at that point is often the difference between happy, healthy, growing relationship dynamics, and ones where people are shoving things down each others throats until someone explodes in a shower of death and destruction.

So, let's say you've just missed your mark.  You said you'd do X, and it didn't happen.  Moreover, that impacted at least one other person in your network.  What then?  Sometimes, if it's a biggie, or there is extra emotional energy around that error, it can seem pretty attractive to gloss over it, and just try to move forward.  Just employ the whole, "Here's some flowers!  Aren't they pretty?  Love you!" approach that has been immortalized in popular culture.  At that point, the injured party is just supposed to forgive and forget, and get on with things.  No dog house, no conversation, and, most damaging in my estimation, no change.  I'd recommend against that tactic.

Another option that I've seen is getting defensive about the whole thing.  "Sure, I messed up, but it's not that big a deal, and you've also messed up before too, so get off my case!'re so sensitive..."  If someone can't own responsibility for their own action (or inaction) I don't know that they're really ready for prime time.

Complete ignorance is another approach that is utilized to avoid confrontation and conflict following a mistake.  If no one talks about it, doesn't overtly notice it at all, it didn't happen.  This type of stuffing things to the back of the closet usually leads to explosive decompression of All The Things in a much more catastrophic fashion on down the road.

What to do?  How does one fix an oops?  Here's an approach that has worked well for me, both as the offender, and the offended:

The first step in any healing process is to acknowledge that an error was made.  Whether it was under your control or not, something you did, or failed to do, negatively impacted someone you love.  Say it out loud.  Say it with empathy.  "I know I said I would do X, but I'm not going to be able to hit that mark.  I know X was important to you."  If you can honestly add that it was important to you as well, do that.

If it's something that wasn't your fault, it's okay to say that, but don't allow it to be an excuse.  "Traffic is really snarly.  There's no way I'm going to be there on time for our date.  I'm disappointed about that." is much better than just showing up 45 minutes behind with no acknowledgment.

"I'm sorry."  So small a sentence.  So fraught with peril and emotional baggage for many. Both from the giver and the receiver, there is vulnerability.

When I apologize, I'm owning up to a mistake, failure, omission, lack of ability or capacity, poor planning, or inability to predict my own emotional capacity.  I kinda hate that.  So I've practiced.  I practice apologizing with small things that aren't so loaded, so that when the big ones come along, it's less clunky to get the words out, and my partners and I have had opportunities to feel that shared vulnerability together without the world being at risk.

When I am receiving an apology, it can be difficult to listen effectively, to hear what is being shared, without rushing into my own hurt feelings, frustrations, or past damage.  It can be a challenge to stay open to forgiving someone, because it often feels safer to hold that hurt as a reminder to stay closed and protected, rather than being in a space of letting go, and moving forward together, particularly if there's an issue that is ongoing and repeated, rather than a one-off incident.

Now that you've acknowledged what happened, and shared an apology about it, it's time to take action!  Apologies are just words unless there is change, progress, or an agreement on what happens next.

Is there a clear way to avoid repeating the error?  Talk it out, agree upon that course of action, and implement it.

There are times where there isn't a fix in the moment, the opportunity has been missed, so the conversation is about what to do now that the previous plan is out the window? "I know that we missed the movie start time because I was running late.  Let's find another activity together that would feel bonding, relaxing, and enjoyable this evening."

Complex issues usually resolve over time with incremental progress, rather than one grand planning session followed by perfect implementation. There may also be some backsliding at points.  It can be easy to lose sight of forward momentum when an issue still is in development, circumstances are not ideal, or there is ambiguity about the path forward.

On the really deep things, I'd recommend trying to employ a more time lapse approach to viewing an incident.  Chances are excellent that today is still a big step up from 6 months ago, for example, even if it went better last month.  What small refinements can you see that would tip things further in the direction of good?  Share those, and see if you can get buy in from your partners on making that happen!

Mistakes happen.  That's life with imperfect people.  Finding a path forward together in those moments are what spell success or failure in relationships.  Acknowledge, Apologize, and find useful Action to move through it together.  Screw ups are shared experiences that can build immense resilience and tensile strength in your relationships, if you're willing.